Silent anger over killing of sisters in Kashmir

Inside her dingy one-room home in this apple-rich town in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, a middle aged mother writhed in grief at the killing of her two teenage daughters, allegedly by rebels fighting Indian rule.

Outside, in the rest of disputed Kashmir, the killings drew only silent anger and quiet condemnation.

While a similar killing blamed on government forces two years ago triggered massive unrest and demands for freedom that enveloped Kashmir, this latest violence has brought a far more muted reaction.

The rebels inspire a mixture of hero worship and fear among many in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir, where militants have fought Hindu majority India since 1989 to gain independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan. At least 68,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the uprising and subsequent Indian crackdown.

"They are freedom fighters who sacrifice their lives for our collective honor and dignity. We don't support killings but we support the cause they are fighting for," said Shabir, a Sopore shopkeeper who gave only one name for fear of reprisals.

The two-decade-long armed rebellion has waned but anger against Indian rule still runs deep. Over the past three summers, Kashmir has erupted in huge street protests, leading to the deaths of nearly 180 people, mostly in firing by police and paramilitary soldiers.

Despite the government crackdown, residents have little fear of protesting against government forces.

The 2009 death of two sisters-in-law in the town of Shopian sparked months of street demonstrations. Residents accused troops of rape and murder and government agencies of a cover-up. A federal investigation, widely disbelieved here, claimed the women's drowning in the shallow stream a kilometer apart was an accident.

The rebels rarely target women.

However, on a cold night in Sopore on Jan. 31, attackers carrying automatic rifles whisked Arifa, 17, and Akhtara, 19, away from their home. Police say the men were rebels, though their mother, Fracha Begum, has said only that they were gunmen.

"I pleaded at their feet to forgive my daughters if they had committed any mistake," she said.

Less than an hour later, police recovered their bodies riddled with bullets about a mile away.

Violence is familiar to the family.

One cousin was shot and killed by Indian forces while hoisting a Pakistani flag on that country's independence day, and another was among at least 50 killed during a siege of the town by the government forces in 1993.

Five women, relatives and neighbors, who could hardly fit in the crammed room that serves as the family's kitchen, dining room and bedroom tried consoling the grieving mother, as she lamented why the gunmen refused to spare even one of the daughters.

Her painful shrieks triggered silent tears from her lone surviving child, 16-year-old Ghulam Jeelani.

"They (his sisters) did not even attend school. What could they have done to warrant this?" he sobbed.

Police were quick to blame the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group for the killings. Before the family even got their bodies home, Omar Abdullah, Indian-controlled Kashmir's top elected official, took to Twitter to condemn the killings.

"They were at least four militants and we have identified three. We're trying to establish the motive behind the killings," said Altaf Ahmad Khan, Sopore's police chief.

Lashkar denied involvement and separatist political groups in Kashmir condemned the killings.

Yet residents seem convinced the rebels killed the sisters for their alleged association with government forces deployed in the town, and militants had warned them at least twice before. Militants have also warned other women against working with the intelligence agencies through handwritten bills with the names of the accused spies pasted throughout town.

"Women are being used to spy on militants. In the last one month alone they (militants) questioned six girls in the area and warned them to stop such activities," said a local resident who has been arrested twice as an alleged militant sympathizer and spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.

The killings of the sisters is the first such incident in a town known as a bastion of separatist politics and militants. While people are angry about the killings, very few attended the sisters' funeral out of support for the militants and fear of being branded themselves as government supporters.

"When separatist leaders condemned the killings, only then did we visit the family for condolence," said a retired teacher who wished not to be named for fear of reprisal.

Yet five days later, when army soldiers killed a man in the adjacent town of Handwara, thousands took to the streets in protests against Indian rule that subsided only when police registered a murder case against an army unit and Abdullah visited the family to apologize.